Trends | Erik Semmelhack

Hometown: Bodyguard to BBQ08.02.2019

In the US barbecue is more than just food. It has become a tradition with a strong community of super believers. Brooklyn native Billy Durney is one of them. After having worked almost 20 years in the security and private protection field, during which had been keeping a close eye on some of the country's most prominent public figures, Billy fulfilled his longtime dream – he opened his own BBQ spot. I visited Billy’s Hometown Bar-B-Que to discover his story.

Erik:  The first time we met you were still carrying a pistol.

Billy:  Still do sometimes...(small laugh) I was in private protection at that time. I remember telling you my plan to open a Barbecue restaurant over a burger at the famous Peter Luger’s Steak House. We used to talk a lot about food, swap ideas for hot sauces and stuff… That was your first burger at Luger's right?

Yes, you showed me it was the best burger in New York, and still is. I was wondering why did you walk away from such a lucrative gig in private protection and how did that lead you to Hometown?

Travel has always been a passion of mine. I grew up in Brooklyn where, in East Flatbush, some people have never been to Manhattan, nevermind the world. Although I am passionate about where I grew up, so much love for it, I always had a yearning to leave in a sense. When I got into the private protection business, I was able to travel all over the world. It really expanded my mind. Around the time my daughter was 4 or 5 years old I began grilling a lot in our backyard. My travels had piqued my interest in cooking. Especially recent trips to South America and a little town named Taylor, 40 miles outside of Austin, Texas.  I walked into the Taylor Cafe in this one-horse-town and it changed who I am and what I would be for the rest of my life.  The pit-master there, Vincenzo, is still there in his mid-90’s.

So it’s not like you just opened Hometown by walking in and turning the lights on.

When I left the private protection community I somehow convinced my girlfriend at the time, now wife of 7 years, to spend every single dollar we had traveling around the world gathering inspiration, figuring out my culinary style. After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and gaining about 90 pounds, I came back with the worst answer possible – I didn't want to do anything I had seen, done or eaten, other than to pay homage to that place in Central Texas and their beef, rib and brisket.  

I remember telling you my plan to open a Barbecue restaurant over a burger at the famous Peter Luger’s Steak House. We used to talk a lot about food, swap ideas for hot sauces and stuff…

Did you get some professional training?

I’ve been schooled by pitmasters and heavyweights in the barbecue community – specifically Wayne Miller, Sam Jones and Pat Martin – it began when I went to Murphysboro, Illinois to take a class at 17th Street Bar and Grill. Funny enough, I'm about to teach a class there in a couple of weeks, all these years later. I signed up for this class knowing I’d learn a lot and well aware that these three legends would be teaching. I figured we may have a common denominator in our love of travel, barbecue and the community it fosters. So, I got there a day early and went to 73 Bar and Grill, a famous barbecue place – and behold who’s sitting at the bar? Mike Mills, life-mentor and barbecue legend. I was very nervous to speak to him and you know I don’t get nervous about much. I told Mike I was from Brooklyn and planned on opening up a barbecue spot there. We wound up sitting, drinking beers for an hour, while I asked a million questions – me and this God amongst barbecue people – I just fell in love with him.

Well, barbecue is a business of tradition, right?

Exactly! Mike said to me, “What you’re going to learn down here is that barbecue is about community and lifestyle, it’s not a business – it's about family.” I knew then I was there for all the right reasons and he felt that too. He believed in me right away. The class I’m teaching is called Brisket MBA, the same title of the class I took almost nine years back from a then unknown Sam Jones (Owner of world’s famous Carolina barbecue joint, Skylight Inn).

I didn't want to do anything I had seen, done or eaten, other than to pay homage to that place in Central Texas and their beef, rib and brisket.  

Now, this whole thing almost didn’t happen because of the Hurricane Sandy. I came to see you right before. Sandy totally took you off the map!

Totally off the map! But I believed in this building, in this neighborhood, in the culture of what I was doing. With Sandy, I lost all my money, I lost everything I had – but I think rebuilding this place actually turned out to be my life's work.  

You were so passionate about what you envisioned that you were willing to go all in.

This will always be the mothership, the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done because it took so much perseverance. I was pawning a watch for rent money to reopen the restaurant. It was very humbling, because I left my previous career at the highest level, making a really good living, traveling with my family in style.

With Sandy, I lost all my money, I lost everything I had – but I think rebuilding this place actually turned out to be my life's work.  

You actually want to connect with the folks interacting with your brand, your food, your establishment.

Over the last eight or nine years, my life has been so fulfilled, not only because of the restaurant’s success and international acclaim, but (way more importantly) the relationships I’ve made. Mike, Pat, Wayne and Sam have become best friends to me, all because of the fateful day I walked into that bar, sat beside Mike and spoke about my dream.  

I see these celebrity chefs whose heads get too big, too fast and they don't want to participate or interact once their egos get in the way.

See, that just doesn’t fly within the barbecue community. For example, I got an email from this guy named Jonathan Fox, never met him. He was trying to gather some of the best pit masters in the country for a benefit festival. He wrote that the general manager of his restaurant was stricken with cancer – a beautiful woman with the kindest soul – and that her family was in desperate need. Without missing a beat I replied, “I’m in” – two words, no questions asked. Every dollar of all proceeds would go directly to her. I went down to Atlanta and turns out Sam Jones, Pat Martin and Mike Mills were all there. We raised a significant amount of money for this woman and her family and formed new bonds.

So your community is about showing up and being a good human?

Totally. That is how the barbecue community rolls. Just to be a spoke in the wheel is overwhelming to me, even now. It’s about being super passionate about your product and super passionate about your customers. Mike Mills says something like, “You won't find that in the spaghetti business.” And it’s true, I’ve never heard anyone say “no” to any request, by anybody in the barbecue family. It’s a rather small, strong unit of people generating a lot of goodwill around the world.

Hometown is located in a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Red Hook – a little nook in the corner of our borough that hasn't gotten a ton of attention in the last 50 years. There’s no direct subway closeby, there’s a bus or two, but that’s isolated this section of Brooklyn for many years. I would argue that you are one of the businesses that created an anchor here, making this neighborhood a destination despite being hard to get to. It says a lot about your business and your success.

Red Hook was a massive Longshoreman's community for a very long time. It was a very hard working, blue-collar neighborhood and when that industry left here, this place became a war zone. Literally wild dogs all over the streets and any vice you could want. There's no more important community in Brooklyn to me now than Red Hook. Hometown is actually named after my grandmother and great grandmother, who immigrated here from Ireland and Norway in the late 1920s. They both lived a few blocks away from here.

All of your stories are circuitous, a theme of continually coming back “home.”

What can I say? I love tradition. I'm about to open Red Hook Tavern down the street that looks like you’re walking into the 1890s.

I can't wait to see it. So, you're opening other businesses in Red Hook. What about other parts of NYC or the US?

I am really excited about expanding, but it has to be done right and with the same passionate people that Hometown Red Hook has. I have another Hometown in Industry City, Brooklyn and am also about to break ground in Miami. I am really excited by the Miami operation because it is in a really authentic section of the city and reminds me a lot of Red Hook. Stay tuned.

Erik Semmelhack / @@erik_semmelhack

Proud New Yorker, a passionate traveler, scout for the new & useful and lover of all things delicious. On the field he’s a global results driven innovator, digital grown-up and social executive with over 20 years’ experience in creative production and advertising in companies like Omnicom, Major League Gaming, Ted Steel Entertainment and Ars Thanea. Currently, Erik is the Chief Revenue Officer at Splash Worldwide, where he leads the company for North America.

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